When Anamika, mum to a 15-year-old, wanted her son to know “about the birds and the bees beyond the ninth standard textbook lesson”, she approached a physician. Having taught her son about ‘good touch, bad touch’ when he was younger, she wanted this to be handled by a professional. The male doctor, in his late 50s, told her that she would be setting a bad example for him. A second, younger physician told her not to worry and that “boys have a way of figuring things out. For all you know, he already knows”. She then approached a female doctor, in her mid-30s, who asked if her husband was aware that she was “teaching these things to his son”. A fourth doctor told her that young girls get pregnant because mothers like her supported their sons in doing these things. Finally, Anamika decided to have a chat with her son by herself, and documented the experience on her Twitter account (@HiAinwe).
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This, in a nutshell, is the issue with sexuality education in India. Since it has its seeds in the AIDS awareness movement, it tends to focus on what not to do instead of helping adolescents navigate relationships, establish boundaries, and understand protection.
Neelu Grover, a safety and sexuality educator, who runs the Facebook page, The Gandi Baat Project, has worked with almost 50 schools in Mumbai. “Both schools and parents find it difficult to accept and acknowledge that a teenager is a ‘sexual’ being,” she says. “The concepts of friendship, romantic relationships, and sexual pleasure taught in a wholesome way are missing. Hence, the youth are learning [and they will, in this hyper sexualised world] about sexual pleasure in manipulative, harmful and unsafe ways.”
Sexuality education in India is a little hazy. While the country is obliged to provide free, compulsory, and comprehensive education to adolescents and young people — as one of the signatories to the 1994 United Nations International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) — a 2008 report published in the United Nations Human Rights Council site states, “In India, private schools are free to choose whether to include sexuality education in their curricula… Those schools affiliated with the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) are required to have a component of sex education in their syllabi but such schools are a minority. Most schools do not have any form of sexuality education in their curricula.”
This seems to corroborate our findings: sexuality education is conducted in schools but is not mandatory.
Mumbai-based children’s author Natasha Sharma is a mother to two teenagers, a son and a daughter, aged 16 and 14. They study at one of the city’s reputed schools. “My children did have some sessions from as early as grade five, which explained periods, hormonal changes, puberty.” However, while they were helpful and conducted timely, she feels “sex education needs to grow much broader today. Talking about different gender choices, acceptance and respect for the same, pronoun choices — these are extremely important. In addition, we need conversations on the sexualising of language, and the chatter on social platforms and WhatsApp groups need to be addressed”.
Swati Jagdish, a psychologist and sexuality health educator, runs the popular Instagram handle @mayas_amma (with a following of 331k) that prominently features conversations with her eight-year-old daughter Maya. “I don’t think schools are doing much as of now. Some do take the initiative of inviting a sex health educator/doctor to talk about puberty and menstruation. From what I have understood after interacting with parents is that for most schools, sex ed is just period education. Barely have I come across a school that has done a talk on online safety, sexual grooming…”
When Jagdish started conducting classes on motherhood, the menstrual cup, etc, she received a lot of queries from parents looking for help on how to address children-related issues such as preventing sex abuse, and watching pornography. “I realised that sex education is important to manage a lot of issues that we face, such as gender-based violence, body shaming etc. It can slowly put an end to these.” Jagdish conducts workshops for parents of kids in the 1-10 age group. “That’s the right time to start. We can have simple conversations regarding body safety, consent, autonomy, and decision making.” Till date, she has conducted workshops in Chennai, Bengaluru, Kochi, Thiruvananthapuram, Mumbai, and Hyderabad, and online as well.
What is the role of schools then? Grover feels the institutions should give scientific, inclusive, and accurate information over multiple sessions throughout students’ school years. Woodstock School in Mussoorie, for example, follows PSHE (Personal, Social, and Health Education), a curriculum used in the UK. Jeffrey Doerfler, Head of Upper Years, tells us, “We introduce the topic of sexuality in grades six to eight. In the beginning, it is introduced in a scientific manner. As this is taught by our trained personal counsellors, they are able to have Q and A sessions as well. As the students get older, we emphasise the emotional side of relationships.”
While schools can add to the foundation, the home needs to be the basis for such conversations to begin. Even if we can’t all have a parent who is a certified sex therapist, like Gillian Anderson’s open-minded Jean Milburn, in Netflix’s British comedy, Sex Education.
- With the tagline ‘We Give Sex a Good Name’, Agents of Ishq is a multi-media project by Parodevi Pictures, an independent Mumbai-based media and arts company. They have videos, audio and blogs about sex, love and desire in India. Expect to find honest accounts.
- For the podcast generation, thesexed.com is ‘a platform dedicated to sex, health and consciousness education’. Founder Liz Goldwyn features a range of guests, from authors and therapists, to social workers, designers and so on, as they unravel love, sex, and relationships in a modern world.
- Netflix’s ‘Sex Education’ has become popular among curious teenagers and parents too, for dealing with complex issues. Laurie Nunn, the creator, told washingtonpost.com that the “more I developed the show, it became apparent that it really is a great opportunity to have quite open conversations about things that are really important, like body positivity and consent and female pleasure and desire. These are all things that I was definitely not taught about at school.”
Dehradun-based businessman Himmat Kohli, father to a son and a daughter, aged 21 and 17, says that his family structure “is such that we had incorporated an open forum as early as in class five. It was the perfect opportunity to normalise conversations around sex and help build a healthy attitude towards it, and when the kids went to their boarding schools [The Doon School and Mayo College, Ajmer] they were less likely to fall victim to false information”.
The onus, he feels, lies with all the stakeholders: children, parents and teachers. While Sharma adds that both parents and schools have a crucial role to play: “It’s better to get some of this information from a reliable source rather than curious minds trying to figure out on the internet or incorrect information garnered from a peer group. Secondly, discussions on gender choices, both at home and in school, normalises this and increases acceptance in society overall.”
When my 12-year-old daughter came home from her international school, with homework that entailed watching a series of videos on YouTube called The Great Sperm Race, I took it as the perfect opportunity to sit with her and become part of the journey of her sexuality education. We watched the videos (Part 1 has over a million views) and then had an open conversation about sex, with surprisingly no giggling or squirming.
Most professionals agree that sex education needs to go beyond what Grover calls “safe” and “incomplete” concepts such as menstruation, reproductive organs, and STDs. To address this gap, Reckitt, the consumer-healthcare company (which owns Durex), designed The Birds and The Bees Talk, and launched it in 2020 with the support of the state governments of Manipur, Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh (where the prevalence of HIV is high). “We wanted to design a programme that is children friendly, with a focus on five pillars: Awareness, Consent, Protection, Equity and Inclusion,” says Ravi Bhatnagar, Director of External Affairs and Partnerships, South Asia. The programme — which has already reached two million school children and aims to touch another three million — has an interactive curriculum, using AI-based chatbots, workshops, webinars, and age-appropriate videos to impart behavioural change communication. It is now launching a digital ecosystem and trying to establish new vehicles of communication such as audiobooks and podcasts.
Given India’s chequered history with sexuality education, has the programme encountered roadblocks? “We haven’t faced any hesitation because the curriculum is largely co-created and co-owned [they work closely with Wipro GE Healthcare, Love Matter — a global sexual and reproductive health and rights programme — state governments, parent groups, school committees, etc],” he explains. To increase acceptance, the programme also uses local festivals as a vehicle to propel discussions around sexual awareness.
Perhaps such public-private partnerships are the answer going forward. They could help bring comprehensive sexuality education to the 600-odd million youth in the country. Kohli sums it up best when he says, “India needs a curriculum which teaches respect, consent and love.”
Geetika Sasan Bhandari was formerly editor, Child magazine, and now runs a parenting blog, Let’s Raise Good Kids.
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Printable version | Jan 14, 2022 1:15:04 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/education/schools/sex-education-the-classroom/article38184132.ece
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